Shadow Among Sheaves
I felt conflicted writing the review for Shadow Among Sheaves. I love the premise; the story of Ruth from the bible reimagined in Victorian England. However, the execution wasn’t quite as smooth as I had hoped for.
Rena, a young Brahmin woman, had married British officer Edric Hawley impulsively. She loved him deeply and passionately, and mourned with equal fervor when he was gone. Two years later, she mourns him still. At least a small part of that is due to the devastating financial consequences his death meant for her mother-in-law Nell and herself. Sir Alistair, Edric’s father, had “set aside a comfortable allowance for his wife and daughter-in-law. With the death of his son, however, he had weakened considerably in both spirit and frame, until, worried for his wife, he had scrambled to secure further savings by making risky investments in his final year.” The end result is that the two women can barely afford passage from India to England and once there, are forced to do dishes and scrub floors in exchange for lodgings in a bar that essentially serves as a whorehouse. The room doesn’t come with meals and the two women are slowly starving to death.
After walking the entire length of town looking for more work, Rena comes upon a field where wheat is being harvested. Desperate, she gleans among the fallen sheaves, hoping to gather enough to take to the mill and earn money for some food. The steward catches her at it and warns her that this behavior is considered theft. She will be allowed to do it that day, as an act of charity, but that will be all.
Then Jack Fairfax, Earl of Barric and owner of the field, spots Rena following his workers. He learns her story from the steward but thinks little of it until later that evening. Riding into town, he again spots Rena, this time as she is being harassed by his loathsome cousin Thomas and his friends. Jack intervenes, and moved to pity by her emaciated yet somehow still beautiful visage, he invites Rena to continue gleaning in his fields. As he learns more of her story, he continues to try to help both her and Nell, but because of her stay in a house of ill repute, his every act of kindness leads to whispers and innuendo. Jack’s younger brother and cousin have done a great deal to tarnish the family reputation and he does not want to do anything to result in additional scandal but he finds himself drawn to the lovely foreigner in a way he has never been drawn to a woman before. Torn between his culture and heart, he finds himself struggling to do the right thing.
The author does a wonderful job of capturing some of the prejudice and outright hatred Rena would have faced as an Indian in Victorian England, She arrives just a short time after the Indian Rebellion/Mutiny of 1857, which had sparked deep anger and resentment among the British, so the responses Rena receives from those around her seemed authentic. Ms. Stephens also does a wonderful job of painting vivid, engrossing word pictures with her prose; I felt I could see every scene she described. Another positive to the story is the clear depiction of the life widows faced in India. Sati had only been banned thirty years prior to the rebellion and widows were an unfortunate reminder of the changes enforced by British rule. Young widows like Rena were viewed as especially ‘unlucky’ and were unwelcome in most communities. The author does a nice job of explaining that situation without passing judgment on the culture.
Romance novels are rarely bastions of historical accuracy so I tend to allow for a lot of artistic license when reviewing books in this genre. However, I do feel that some of the liberties taken in this novel merit a mention. For example, an earl would be judged less for taking an Indian woman as a mistress than he would be for taking an Indian woman as a wife. He might be judged a bit for his proclivities but it would be nothing like the castigation he’d receive for taking what would be, in the eyes of the aristocracy, a low-born woman as his countess and elevating her to their highest ranks. Rena was not a princess, and clearly did not come from sufficient wealth to overcome what would, at that time, have been the stigma of being a foreigner. The repercussions socially for marrying both ‘beneath’ him and a foreigner would most likely be quite serious. Additionally, Sir Alistair was a baron with an inherited baronetcy and enviable property; Nell, as the widow of a baron would be accepted into the homes of her relatives. If she had a young Indian daughter-in-law in tow, she would likely have been housed with the servants and been treated as one, but I was deeply skeptical that the family would completely abandon both of them. It would have done far less damage to familial reputation to have them living in a corner of the attic than to have them openly living in a brothel. This made no sense to me. The issues surrounding the wills and entailments were also quite unbelievable.
I also struggled with the way the reimagining of the story was handled. I love retellings because placing the narrative in a new time and place can help us find new meaning in an old tale and give us a fresh perspective on the nuances of beloved stories. In this case, the author seemed to get hung up on details which made little sense in their new time and place, such as Ruth gleaning in the fields becoming Rena doing the same. A stipulation in the will made sense for Boaz in his position as kinsman redeemer, but made little sense for Jack in Victorian England. There was a scene towards the end of the novel meant to recreate Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor which added a sexual element to the encounter that did not exist in the original tale.
Indeed, this story, for an inspirational, deals a lot with what would have in that time been called the ‘unseemly’ side of sex. From its opening chapters in a brothel to the endless innuendos regarding Jack and Rena’s relationship, to the closing scenes of the story, sex is very prevalent in the text. I know some read inspirationals looking for a book completely free of such issues so I feel it’s only fair to provide a warning.
Those are significant issues but the author manages to tell a compelling tale in spite of them.
Excellent prose, an intriguing story and interesting characters raise this uncommon retake on a beloved tale to above average status. Shadow Among Sheaves may not be a perfect book but for those looking for a unique inspirational, it’s definitely worth a read.